Tag Archives: Keynes

“Look after the unemployment, and the budget will look after itself ” (Keynes 1933). Is he still right?

(This article was first published in Liberal Democratic Voice)

Keynes was undeniably a genius of his time, but he wasn’t infallible. We should not just assume that he was always correct. As with all prolific writers we can cherry-pick quotations to suit our own political purposes. If we want to argue for more government spending, we can use this:

“For the proposition that supply creates its own demand, I shall substitute the proposition that expenditure creates its own income.”

(Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes, Volume XXIX, pp 80-81)

Keynes meant that the mere supply of a commodity is not enough to ensure the sale of that commodity, but money from all government spending inevitably ends up in someone’s pocket. This is a statement of the obvious, maybe, but he evidently felt it needed making anyway. On the other hand, if we are suspicious of what sounds like “magic money tree” economics, as many scathingly describe any deviation from their understanding of ‘sound money’, we can find this quotation:

“By a continuing process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens.”

(Economic Consequences of the Peace, Chapter VI, pp. 235-236)

Rather than play these games we might look at how economics has progressed since his time and interpret his comments in the light of the now available evidence. This Huffington post article makes a good a case, in support of Keynes’s opinion, that a healthy economy will help minimise the government’s budget deficit.

One possible counter argument, from those of a more right wing disposition, would be that it is unclear which is cause and which is effect. Does a healthy economy with low levels of unemployment, and underemployment, naturally produce a small budget deficit or is it the other way around? If we force the budget to balance, by draconian measures, will unemployment fall too? A quick glance at the figures for Greece is enough to eliminate that possibility. It has a relatively modest budget deficit of 3.5% but an unemployment rate of over 25% with no tangible sign that any fall is imminent.

To give an answer to the question posed in the title, we can say “usually yes”, but we must acknowledge there are several, sometimes conflicting, factors involved. It is possible to conceive of a healthy economy with low levels of unemployment at the same time as the government’s budget deficit possibly being a little on what some may consider to be the high side.

To understand why, we need to look at the sectoral balances. To start with, imagine that everyone who issued or used the pound sterling as a currency was separated into either the government or the non-government sector. The assets of the non-government sector have to equal the liabilities, or debts, of the government sector. If money is paid as tax to government the assets of the non-government sector fall exactly as the government debts fall too. We can then divide up the non government sector into domestic and international. So in one year, and using the terminology of internal deficit for the Government’s deficit:

Internal Deficit = Savings of Domestic Sector + External Deficit.

For Keynes to be right on the question of unemployment and the internal deficit it should follow that everyone will save less when unemployment is low. This is a reasonable assumption but there could be exceptions. Everyone is more likely to borrow too, essentially the same as de-saving, when the economy is buoyant and there is confidence that money doesn’t have to be stored for those rainy days ahead. The effect on the external deficit is harder to predict. If the UK reflated its economy, when everyone else was in recession, we could well see that, even as unemployment fell, the external deficit, and so the internal deficit, could increase due to a local upturn sucking in more imports. Exporters could also switch their production to local markets. In that sense, and if we interpret “look after itself” to mean “fall”, Keynes could possibly be wrong! The important thing is that governments should understand these relatively simple relationships to make informed policy choices. The internal and external deficits may not be such a problem as we might be led to believe, if international investors see the UK as a safe place to park their surplus cash. The number one priority for any government, at least in peacetime, should be to ensure the health of the economy, both to offer jobs and business opportunities for all citizens and at the same time maintain the confidence of our external investors.

Ironically, if the UK lost that confidence, no-one would want to lend us any money. The pound would fall. Imports and exports would have to balance. We’d all end up somewhat poorer and we couldn’t then afford to save so much. The internal deficit would have to fall too and maybe even turn into a surplus. But, we have to ask ourselves: “Is this what we really want?”

We need to balance the Budget over the Business cycle as Keynes suggested, right?

(This article first appeared in Liberal Democrat Voice)

Firstly, we do need to ask if Keynes did suggest that. There are arguments either way on this point.  Keynes’ view unfolded and developed starting in the bleak 1920’s in Britain. There was no “roaring twenties” for the UK economy as the government deflated the economy to try to fit the Pound back on to its pre war Gold  Standard. Keynes then did argue that governments should run deficits if private spending declined and reduce those deficits when future growth was strong enough. This has been interpreted by many that his intent was that the budget was to be more or less balanced over the business cycle. If anyone is keen to research into his thinking they might like to start with his 1924 publication “A Tract on Monetary Reform”.

A better approach might be to try to understand why Keynes should made a break from tradition and start to advocate that budgets should at times be unbalanced. If we consider an economy which is neither a net exporter nor a net importer and in which everyone spends what they earn within the economy, Government spending and taxation must balance. This is true regardless of the level of taxation imposed (providing it is finite) and so regardless of the level of inflation within the economy. It has to, according to the principle of sectoral balances originally developed in the 60’s and 70’s by the late Prof Wynne Godley at Cambridge University.

If the participants of the economy don’t spend all they earn, ie when private spending declines,  we can have a tendency to recession. Keynesian economists would point out that prices and wages tend to be “sticky” and so don’t respond quickly to changing circumstances as more classically minded economists suggest they should. Therefore, Keynes was quite right to suggest that the Government should spend  more, or tax less,  to prevent recession from occurring. The government needs to borrow money from the savers and spend it on their behalf. Later, when the savers withdraw their money from the bank, or empty their piggy banks, and spend it, the Government needs to run a surplus in its budget to prevent the economy from overheating and inflation occurring. So the budget does indeed end up balanced over the cycle. It ends up being an approximately symmetrical pattern when expressed graphically.

This relatively simple model may have been adequate for the UK economy in the 1920s. However in recent times the extent of saving and desaving hasn’t been symmetrical over the business cycle. When times are good people may borrow and spend more but equally they may put more aside for their retirement. So if the spending/saving/borrowing pattern of the population isn’t symmetric over the business cycle, neither can we  expect the government to run a balanced budget over the business cycle. Instead of imports and exports balancing,  our economy has something like an annual  5% of GDP deficit in its current account. Our trading partners seem happy to supply more real things to us than we supply to them. They take our IOUs in the form of treasury bonds or gilts to make up the difference. In effect they are like a big net saver within the economy. As Keynes pointed out,  if people are saving more, and that includes our trading partners, the Government has to be spending more or taxing less.

The ‘balanced budget over the cycle’ is really just a special case which does not apply to our own 21st century economy. If we try to force the Government budget into balance, at the same time ignoring the trading position and the willingness or otherwise of the economy’s participants to net save then we are courting economic disaster. The budget will not balance, no matter how hard we try, and we will end up like a dog chasing its own tail as the economy spirals ever deeper into recession.